Hymns to the Silence by Michael Ford

Just over four decades ago, Maggie Ross became the first person to be publicly professed as a solitary since the Reformation. The service took place on June 12, 1980, in St. James’ Chapel at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. There, before the Anglican Bishop of New York, Paul Moore, she made vows of simplicity, purity of heart, obedience to the Gospel, and solitude.

The pseudonym of a formidable scholar and challenging writer, Maggie Ross is the author of seven books: Pillars of FlameThe Fountain and The Furnace, Seasons of Death and LifeThe Fire of Your Life, Writing the Icon of the Heart, and two volumes of Silence: A User’s Guide. She has also translated five volumes of Carthusian novice conferences and maintains the blog Voice in the Wilderness.

Ross now lives in Oxford, England, where she has researched and taught at the university. It’s in the city of the dreaming spires that we meet at a hotel where the British television detective drama series Inspector Morse was occasionally filmed. But the mystery Ross is keen to speak about today is much less popular, for solitary life is “oppositional” in a world dedicated to television, iPhones, and consumerism.

“As solitariness has unfolded in the circumstances of my life, I have begun to realize how very countercultural it is,” she tells me over lunch. “To me it’s very conventional and commonsensical, but to other people it arouses curiosity, because I’m not interested in being out there shopping, going to bars, dancing my head off every night or filling my ears with noise all day.”

She admits her lifestyle tends to frighten people. Perhaps there is an echo in their own heart of a silence they have forgotten, of a space they know is there but may be afraid to explore. “The real treasure is here in the heart, it’s not out there,” she points out. “The things out there are beautiful, but they tend to own us, to cause problems and make us care about them when we should be caring about each other and our own hearts. Unfortunately the consumer culture makes people afraid of silence. It makes them feel that, if they seek to be alone, then there’s something wrong with them, when in fact this is the way we evolved. We evolved in silence. 

“I think the ecological crisis is perhaps in part the consequence this loss of silence and, if we want to resolve it, then we’re going to have to learn silence again and get in touch with our own nature. I think one of the reasons we are so fascinated by wildlife programs on television is that we are watching our own lost nature in every sense passing before our eyes, and we realize that something is terribly, terribly wrong. It’s not impossible to reawaken the silence in these senses. You can take the most jaded urban dweller out into the Alaska wilderness and they will wake up. So all hope is not lost, but we need to move very quickly.

“Saving the planet is participating in the joy of God,” she continues. “If we can learn that less is more, it will bring is us greater joy—even more rewards than saving our planet and species. Noise is actually abnormal for human thriving, as we evolved needing to be silent in order to avoid being eaten. We need to listen to nature to understand how precious it is; listen to the science, too; but most of all, listen to each other and God.”

Ross also believes the reason we are “in such terrible trouble as a planet” is because religious institutions “have deliberately suppressed the practice of silence,” and we end up living artificially. “We have very little contact with nature, which means we no longer know how to relate to our own nature, and we no longer know how to relate to the ecology.” She goes on: “I think the word Christ is the process of learning the world of silence that is the kingdom of God. The mind doesn’t want to let go. It doesn’t want to go into silence. It’s afraid—and rightly—because it is a kind of death. It’s death to the iPods, it’s death to the constant fidgeting, because I think we have to learn physical silence as well. The body feels better with ‘less is more.’ Maybe the mind can learn from the body.” 

Ross’s research has not only taken place among the ivory towers of Oxford but also in the harsh and beautiful landscapes of Alaska. “If you go out into the wilderness of Alaska, as I did, you have to give up your own agenda,” she tells me. “If you go out there with an agenda, you will die. It’s that simple—very much like going into the wilderness of your own interior silence when all your subtle senses come alive. Your skin tells you about humidity and barometric pressure, your nose tells you about things you might not recognize consciously or name to yourself. You can be on one side of a bush of blueberries when your hair will go up on the back of your neck, and you can’t see or smell or have any other empirical knowledge that there’s a bear on the other side of the bush. But you pay attention to the hairs that go up on your neck and back away very quickly. It’s the same in the spiritual life, except that the preparation is exactly the opposite. You take equipment into the wilderness—water, tent and things to make fire with—but when you go into interior silence you strip yourself of everything. This alone will help awaken those senses.”

Both Oxford and Alaska have afforded her solitude in different ways. “One reason I left Alaska was that I couldn’t bear watching it be destroyed by global warming, which has greatest impact at the poles before anywhere else. However, I do miss the immersion in wild nature that I had there. Both Oxford and Alaska have allowed me to ‘hide in plain sight,’ which in some ways is more satisfactory than insisting on special environments and surrounding myself with an elaborate support network, which can often be distracting and self-defeating. Anyway, I’m too old now to live in the wilderness, and there are enough solitaries around that I am happily no longer an object of curiosity.”

Ross was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but moved to Washington, D.C., when her father was elected to Congress. When she was a child, she had what she describes as an “encounter” that determined the course of her life. “Something happened to me when I was five and, in that moment of coming to myself, as it were, I knew that whatever it was that I had encountered out of my own sight was what I wanted to give my life to,” she explains. “Of course, I couldn’t have articulated that as a child. It was, in effect, what I said to myself, for I knew nothing about religion and had never been in a church until that point. I suppose the unfolding of my life became both an articulation of it and my war with it, because it’s not something I chose for myself. I would have liked to have lived a very ordinary life in the sense of a consumer and the rest of it, but that simply wasn’t possible.”

She was educated at the National Cathedral School in Washington, Potomac and Madeira Schools in Virginia, Skidmore College, and Stanford University, where she studied history and theology. Despite her intellectual gifts, she knew she would still have to find some way of remaining faithful to what had happened to her as a child. She spent some time in a novitiate and also got to know the Anglican Franciscan brothers in New York City. After becoming involved in conservation work, she set up a foundation that is now part of the World Wildlife Fund. While taking the British naturalist Gerald Durrell on a coast-to-coast tour, she met the owner of a winery and vineyard who happened to be looking for a manager. During her several years with the project in the Russian River Valley of California, she discovered another Franciscan community. When she decided to leave the vineyard job, the brothers invited her to stay with them. 

Although she had never spoken of it, she sensed she would have to find some way of living in solitude. Then, the morning after she arrived, the guardian asked to meet her in the living room and told her that she had a vocation to the solitary life. “‘We all know it, we can all see it,’ he said. I was in a state of complete shock.” After a year spend mostly in a tent, the Franciscans moved her to their community on Long Island. She became a professed solitary a few years later.

“I made irrevocable vows,” she says. “The bishop professed me for the whole church—there were no canons to cover the situation, since I was the first, as far as we knew, to be publicly professed as a solitary since the Reformation.” Although she has been approached several times to be ordained in the Anglican Church, she has resisted, believing that her vocation “is to Christ’s priesthood in my being, not to function as part of the ordained secular power structure.” 

Looking back, Ross admits that her life has been “adventurous in the good and bad sense,” adding: “I wouldn’t do it again—and I wouldn’t have done it in the first place had it not been a vocation. But I have no regrets. I suppose the most negative word that has been most frequently applied to me is intransigent. I take that as a compliment because I think spiritual maturity means you can’t be coerced. Obedience to the Gospel—any kind of obedience—has to come from freedom. It can’t come from coercion or dependence. I want to give myself to this God who has driven my life—this whatever it is that has driven my life—even though I feel I’ve had no choice. I have made a free assent to it. It’s like dying in a way. We all die. We can choose to die or we can fight it. But if we choose it, we make it our own and we do it as an expression of the truth of who we are.” ♦

Michael Ford is a biographical writer and ecumenical theologian living in the UK. His features for TAC reflect a lifelong interest in the spiritual and psychological journeys of women and men from all walks of life. He may be contacted at hermitagewithin@gmail.com.

Image: Christ Church Meadow, Oxford, England | Tetiana Shyshkina | Unsplash

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